30 Dec 2008

U.S. Supreme Court gets exorcism case of ex-Colleyville woman

Star-Telegram - Texas December 26, 2008

by Max B. Baker

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to review the case of a former Colleyville woman who claims a forced traumatic exorcism left her so physically bruised and emotionally scarred that she later attempted to commit suicide.

A sharply divided Texas Supreme Court ruled in June that the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God staff and members are protected by the First Amendment because it involves an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct.

Laura Schubert Pearson described a wild night in 1996 that involved casting out demons from the church and two attempts to exorcise demons from her. Only 17 years old, the incident lead Pearson to eventually attempt suicide.

Pearson’s attorneys contend that the Texas Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision "dramatically and dangerously departs" from U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, adding that someone’s religious beliefs do not excuse them from being held accountable under valid state laws that prohibit such things as assault and false imprisonment.

"We don’t know what kind of mischief the decision is going to create," because it tries to expand the universe of activities that are protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion precepts, said Scott Gant, the Washington D.C. attorney who is representing the Pearson and her family. "The Texas Supreme Court’s majority ignored some of the most relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions and then misapplied others."

Forbidden territory

In briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys representing the now defunct church _ it has since merged with another Colleyville Church — contend the case is about a personal injury case regarding mental anguish damages that should be left for the state courts to decide.

Arguing that a similar claim has never been made in a United States court, David Pruessner, the church’s attorney, also wrote that "pursuing this tort path would take the courts into forbidden territory: protected religious conduct." He adds the Texas high court’s decision is consistent with the legal doctrine of ecclesiastical autonomy.

"It is fundamental that the Constitution embraces the right to be free from unwarranted governmental intervention," Pruessner’s brief states. The Dallas attorney could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Gant expects the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if it will consider the case by mid to late January.

Pearson is now 29 years old, married and lives in Georgia.

Spread eagle

What happened to Laura Schubert Pearson at the church spanned several days in the summer of 1996.

Pearson and her brother, Joey, were involved in church activities while there parents were out of town. On a Friday evening, the atmosphere at the church became "spiritually charged" when another youth said he saw a demon.

At the youth minister’s direction, the youth frantically anointed everything in the church with holy oil until they were exhausted and finally dismissed early Saturday morning.

At the Sunday evening worship services, Laura Pearson collapsed and church members "laid hands" on her and forcibly held her arms even as she cried, yelled and demanded to be let go. She was finally released after she calmed down and replied with requests to say the name Jesus.

The following Wednesday, during a youth service, Pearson reportedly began acting in the same manner, curling into a fetal position and asked to be left alone. Church members thought she was in distress and held her down in a "spread eagle" position. Pearson suffered carpet burns and scrapes on her back and bruised wrists.

After the exorcism, she dropped out of high school her senior year, began to cut herself as many as 100 times over several years, and refused to leave the house. Pearson slit her wrists with a box cutter.

Spiritual warfare

In his U.S. Supreme Court brief, Pruessner describes the activities at the Pentecostal Pleasant Glade church to cast out demons as "spiritual warfare" that is a controversial activity of the denomination.

To outsiders, while it may appear "weird," he said that tens of millions of Pentecostal followers pursue these beliefs without harm, including Alaska governor and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Her father, Tom Schubert, is a former Assembly of God pastor and missionary. He has since quit the church.

"This was simply normal church life for (Pearson) and her family," Pruessner wrote.

The church’s attorneys told a Tarrant County jury that Pearson’s psychological problems actually were caused by traumatic events she witnessed while her parents were serving in Africa. They also continually argued that the ministers and staff were trying to help Pearson, not hurt her.

But her father questioned what happened and the family eventually sued. They said their daughter had been abused and falsely imprisoned, and the 2002 trial never touched on the religious aspects of the case.

A jury found the church and its members liable and awarded Pearson $300,000 for mental anguish, but the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth cut $122,000 from the verdict for loss of future income.

Dangerous practice

In the church’s appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, it raised the question of whether Pleasant Glades’ First Amendment rights regarding freedom of religion do not prevent the church from being held liable for mental distress triggered by what it described as a "hyper spiritualistic environment."

For the court to impose any legal liability on members would possibly have an unconstitutional 'chilling effect’ by compelling the church to abandon core principles, Justice David Medina wrote.

In a stinging dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said the majority’s opinion is an "overly broad holding" that conflicts with well-settled legal and constitutional principles that could "prove to be dangerous in practice."

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